A deeply researched book by a former Philadelphian policeman-turned-academic chronicles the reign of an ultra-violent organized crime family.
Bring up the subject of organized crime in the city, and the first and only thing most people think of is the decades-long Bruno-through-Merlino Italian mob from South Philadelphia.
But from roughly 1968 through 1984, organized crime also flourished in many of the city's African-American neighborhoods, most of it under the average Philadelphian's radar.
"The Black Mafia ran the heroin trade in the city," says Sean Griffin, a former Philadelphia policeman and the author of Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia', a new book that combines gritty street reporting with extensive scholarly research. "They were ruthless and ultra violent. They ruled major sections of the city, and yet somehow today it's as if they never existed."
The Black Mafia was "founded" in 1968 by Sam Christian, "a thick-necked 215-pound bully" and former Black Panther with an extensive rap sheet. Christian built his reputation holding up craps games and extorting drug dealers, numbers men and illegitimate businesses.
In the early days, the Black Mafia's organized command structure consisted of 14 men, all with extensive records, most for violent crimes. As Griffin points out in Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia', a book that grew out of the author's Ph.D. dissertation, the nature of their crimes made them difficult criminals to prosecute because their victims and witnesses so feared retribution.
The stakes for their victims were upped considerably in 1970, when the leaders of the Black Mafia began trafficking narcotics and shooting up bars and businesses when their extortion demands weren't met. A black newspaper in South Philadelphia criticized then-district attorney Arlen Specter for not having the "guts" to address the problem. But as Griffin reports, "the sensitive issue of race was compounded by the Black Mafia's relationship with the burgeoning Black Muslim movement."
Faced with a turf war they would undoubtedly lose, the Black Mafia opted instead to become the extortion arm of the Black Muslims.
Griffin writes that "for a period of approximately five years ending with the death of Elijah Muhammad in February 1975," criminal elements within Philadelphia's Black Muslim Mosque No. 12 worked with the Black Mafia to commandeer lucrative drug territories. The book also tells how the Black Mafia was simultaneously misappropriating government funding for alleged "grassroots" development.
Griffin's reporting on the Black Mafia and its interaction with law enforcement, the Nation of Islam and the Italian mob is fascinating, as much for the book's attention to detail as for the group's over-the-top brutality. Payback and killings were routine--Griffin reports that the Black Mafia murdered more than 30 people from 1968 through 1984--but specific incidents stand out, most notably the Dubrow Furniture Store robbery and the shootout at Atlantic City's famed Club Harlem.
In Jan. 4, 1971, eight Black Mafia affiliates robbed Dubrow Furniture, a city landmark then located at Fourth and South streets.
Writes Griffin: "At approximately 2:00pm, ['Nudie'] Mims, a 'hulking, six-foot, four-inch, 225-pound killer,' and an accomplice entered the store posing as customers. Over the next several minutes, the remaining six affiliates entered the store alone or in pairs, each posing as customers. Once each was inside, they drew guns and forced 20 employees into a rear room where they stripped them, forced them to lie face-down on the floor, and bound them with tape and electrical cord. Thirteen of the employees were beaten and pistol-whipped, and two others were shot."
One of the beating victims was soaked in gasoline and set on fire. The robbers also spilled gasoline throughout the store, setting five fires in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence. Frank Rizzo, then the city's police commissioner, called it "the most vicious crime" he had ever witnessed, and offered to "pull the switch" himself if the defendants received the death penalty.
The other "watershed" moment in Black Mafia history took place Easter Sunday 1972, when "Fat" Tyrone Palmer, known on the street as "Mr. Millionaire," was gunned down in front of several hundred people in Atlantic City's Club Harlem.
Griffin writes that Palmer had just returned from vacation in Bermuda and was sitting ringside at the Harlem with an entourage of women and bodyguards, listening to Philadelphia R&B singer Billy Paul onstage.
Just as Paul was ending "Magic Carpet Ride," his opening number, a gunman walked up to Palmer, shot him in the face, then shot him twice more as he was falling backward. Before Palmer's bodyguards could react, other Black Mafia members opened fire.
When it was all over, 20 people were wounded--11 from gunfire and broken glass, the rest from the melee that ensued. Palmer, three women and Palmer's personal bodyguard were killed. The gunmen even exchanged gunfire with arriving Atlantic City police officers.
Griffin says the chronicling of the Philadelphia Black Mafia's 17-year run is important, not just because of the lessons that can be learned, but because it gives comfort to the living victims of the organization's reign of terror.
"The most rewarding part of the research was finding people who were terrorized all those years ago," Griffin says. "They couldn't believe that somebody remembered and took the time to care."